MMP officially under threat

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

The New Zealand Herald has today devoted its editorial to agreeing with National on holding a referendum on MMP. As I’ve previously criticised, ACT is supporting a referendum on the basis that voters should have a chance to put forward their opinion. And National has committed to holding a binding referendum no later than 2011 on the MMP system. Yet as the Herald editorial shows, there is so much misinformation on MMP that no “fair” referendum could ever take place. I shook my head at the following in the editorial:

Those who backed MMP no longer wanted unbridled power to reside in the hands of a single party. They also hoped for more fruitful and less confrontational consensus politics, thanks to the probable demand for governing coalitions.

Time has confirmed they were overly optimistic. Parliament is not noticeably more congenial and people are irked by several of MMP’s characteristics, most notably unelected list MPs and the disproportionate influence wielded by minor parties.

Some thoughts on this:

  • Point 1: I’d like to know who all these people were who thought Parliament would become more “congenial” with MMP. Friendliness is not the aim of proportional representation and despite another oft repeated claim, I wouldn’t say “co-operation” is either. Politics is always about power and this does not change simply because the number of parties represented in Parliament increases. What MMP does offer is fairer representation of interests and the opportunity for “niche parties” such as ACT put forward their ideas. Parties which have goals in common will naturally seek to work with each other, depending on what numbers are needed after voters have cast their votes on election day.
  • Point 2: list MPs are not “unelected”. Political parties put forward lists before each election. Voters can read these. If you don’t like who is on a list – and plenty of voters will not like seeing Sir Roger Douglas’s name on ACT’s, to cite one example – then you don’t vote for that party. For me this claim is always the most irksome, because it is demeaning to the many, many hardworking list MPs in Parliament. Many list MPs could never win an electorate, not because they are stupid, but because there is not an overwhelming concentration of supporters for their party in any one location. ACT supporters should think of Heather Roy, who is easily one of the most diligent and pleasant MPs around. As the blog site co-run by probable ACT list candidate Clint Heine recently pointed out, Roy will have little chance against National candidate Stephen Franks (ironically himself a former ACT MP). But it would be a great pity if Roy were not returned to Parliament. That is what the list is for.
  • Point 3: “disproportionate influence wielded by minor parties”. Disproportionate influence? Looking at current arrangements, this is hardly the case. New Zealand First and United Future provide the numbers for Labour to govern, but have little more than token positions. Yes, Winston Peters is Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade – but he merely ceremonially represents the foreign policy of the government as a whole; moreover, the foreign affairs portfolio is probably the least partisan of all. As for United Future, Peter Dunne is Minister of Revenue. If you’d forgotten that, or (to use Don Brash’s favourite phrase) can’t recall the last time you heard anything about what he’s been doing, I think it shows exactly what “influence” his party exerts – a very small one precisely in line with support for United Future at the 2005 election. My other major complaint about this part of the editorial is the use of the self-fulfilling term “minor parties”. Please – be less normative and call them small parties instead.

The smokescreen that supporters of another referendum on the electoral system put forward is that a return to FPP is not necessarily the desired outcome. Despite the overall thrust of the editorial (against MMP, as indicated by the title “Referendum due on MMP”), the Herald makes some sound observations on what could possibly replace MMP:

It is hard…to spot [the] alternative. STV’s stocks have slumped thanks to its use in district health board elections, and preferential voting, similarly, is viewed widely as unwieldy.This offers further reason to think twice about casting aside MMP. As does the fact that, as much as it may need refinement, it can be defended strongly on the basis of having, by and large, delivered representative governments over the past 12 years. It should be given a fair trial.

In other words, the alternative proportional representation alternatives to MMP are fairly unappealing or unintelligible for most voters. FPP would therefore be the only genuine alternative. But for the reasons above, amongst others, this does not make it the correct one.

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